Ask anyone who had a house there from the 1950s through the 1990s to define Jersey Shore decor, and you might get a funny look.

Used to be Shore houses were small, quirky cottages filled with cast-off furniture - threadbare couches, mismatched chairs, that sort of thing - culled from the basements of the houses their owners lived in year-round.

Today's Shore houses are bigger and splashier, the result, of course, of skyrocketing property values earlier this decade. And as folks spent more money on their vacation getaways, a new design style emerged.

The key elements of this new Jersey Shore decor: open floor plans, decks, and a mix of cottage and nautical decorating styles, with all the modern conveniences you'll find in homes on the mainland.

"All our designs here . . . now are normally one big space for all communal functions," says Gym Wilson, of Gym Wilson Architects in Ship Bottom, who has been designing Jersey Shore homes since the 1970s.

Kitchen, dining room, living room, deck, "they all blend into one big room," Wilson says. "It goes along with the casual feeling."

When Mike Lorenz bought a 1950s house in Ocean City six years ago, he planned to demolish the house and build from the ground up.

"The house was really old and falling apart," says Lorenz, national managing principal in the Philadelphia office of the architecture firm KlingStubbins. "As we started to lay out a new house, we kept coming back to the same layout I already had."

Instead of tearing the house down, he knocked down walls to create a first floor with no interior boundaries - all the rooms blended together.

He added a solar-power system, vinyl flooring (because the salt air is hard on wood, and the house backs up to the bay), and a bistro area that opens onto both the main living area and the back deck.

For some Caribbean flair, the indoor/outdoor bistro is painted dark blue and has bright-orange highlights.

There's a deck on the second floor, too, with a spiral staircase connecting the two.

Even in old-fashioned Shore cottages, that sense of connection is highly prized, says Ann Delaney, a real estate agent with Tim Kerr Power Play Realty, in Avalon.

"People want big central rooms to be all together," Delaney says.

Not only has she sold a lot of Jersey Shore homes, but Delaney and her husband built a year-round home in Stone Harbor from the ground up.

They had owned an old cottage on the property, which they rented out while living in Cape May Court House. In 2005, they demolished the cottage.

To make sure the new place looked authentic to the Shore while functioning as a full-time residence, Delaney worked with Chrissie Smith of the Summer House Design, in Stone Harbor, and took advice from a book, Bungalow Style: Creating Classic Interiors in Your Arts and Crafts Home by Treena Crochet (Taunton, $29.95).

Jersey Shore houses, like others in the Mid-Atlantic region, tend to have a more rustic flair, said Elizabeth Beeler, homes editor for Coastal Living magazine.

"Natural and exposed wood, vintage furniture, vintage photos, hammocks, retro gliders - they all seem to fit in," Beeler said, as do homemade quilts and wicker.

For Delaney, that meant a lot of white and natural wood inside the house. She added vintage elements throughout, from glass doorknobs to a rusty light fixture in the main foyer.

Lorenz, too, uses a lot of whites and natural tones in his house. He created white half-walls with pillars to break up the space on the main floor.

In both houses, the furniture is big, soft and plush. And the focus isn't always on the TV - it might also be at conversation areas created by the positioning of furniture within the open floor plans.

Naturally, what can make or break any Shore house is the quality of its outdoor spaces, especially on sunny days and starlit nights.

But also, Delaney says, "there's this trend of outdoor living inside," which is why she added decks wherever she could.

Her front deck is screened in, so the front room of the house extends outside, without bugs' being a problem.

"Very important to these houses are the decks - decks being an expansion of the living space," architect Wilson says. "If we could make it all part of the space, we would."

Instead, he says, he uses a lot of glass to make it look as if a deck is part of a room.

Having all that water as a backdrop, it's only natural that Jersey Shore decor would have a softer, almost aqueous, color palette. Lots of pale blues and greens, as well as whites and off-whites - though the rules aren't always set in stone.

Delaney stuck with earth tones to match the color of her walls, from the upholstery on the couches to the pecan color of her kitchen table. Lorenz left the floors on his main story bare, to play along with the wood of the tables and stools there.

And in rentals, Delaney says, she sees a lot of warmer tropical colors in kids' rooms.

Brandy White, who for five years has owned Wanderlust, a home-decor store in Cape May, says, "The longer I'm in this business, the more I realize anything goes.

"Beach living means something different to everyone."

Jen A. Miller is the author of "The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May."